STARKVILLE – Mississippi State was cruising, up 5-1 in the top of the ninth inning, but head coach Chris Lemonis still had work to do. He still needed to coach, to seal the deal in the Starkville Super Regional.
Just one problem.
“My coaches and players couldn’t hear me,” Lemonis said in the post-game news conference. “I couldn’t hear them. We couldn’t communicate. It was so loud. I mean it was so loud.”
It was deafening. Time and again, the raucous crowd of 11,597 thundered their approval:
• Of Jake Mangum’s last Dudy Noble at bat, naturally a sharply hit single to left field on the first pitch he saw.
• Of Jordan Westburg’s single to left that put runners at first and second.
• Of Elijah MacNamee’s towering, three-run home run that upped the final count to 8-1.
• Of graduate student Cole Gordon coming on to pitch the last three outs, two on strikeouts.
This was a college baseball game that turned into a full-blown party, a wild maroon and white celebration. State’s 8-1 victory over proud Stanford Sunday night, followed Saturday’s 6-2 victory over the Cardinal.
Do not take that adjective “proud” lightly where Stanford is concerned. The Cardinal, ranked as high as No. 2 this season, finished the season 45-14 and two victories short of a 17th College World Series appearance. The Cardinal have won the CWS twice, been runners-up three times. They have won 18 conference championships. They can play baseball.
But before two of the most festive and appreciative crowds imaginable, Mississippi State’s Diamond Dogs, now 51-13, put on an NCAA Super Regional baseball clinic. Stanford was no match for the Bulldogs, who spotted the Cardinal a 1-0 lead both nights and then dominated the rest of the way. The ‘Dogs pitched it well, peppered the Dudy Noble playing surface with timely hit after timely hit and looked every bit a confident, efficient, national championship-contending team. Post-season baseball is all about getting hot at the right time, and these Bulldogs are sizzling.
Next stop: Omaha.
Someone asked Mangum to describe the emotions of that ninth inning.
“If you think I can put that into words you are crazy,” Mangum said. “You can’t write it any better either.”
Somebody has to try. Maybe we should let Lemonis, State’s first-year head man, give his assessment of the Dudy Noble experience.
“I was never here at the old ballpark, but this new one is special,” he said. “The character it brings, the crowd, the noise and the atmosphere… It is a rowdy environment, but it is a classy environment. We have baseball fans here. They live and die baseball.”
As proud and as seasoned as Stanford baseball is, the visitors seemed out of sorts at times in an atmosphere they rarely, if ever, see in the Pac-12. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs seemed all the more motivated every time the crowd volume went up another notch.
And we should not go another paragraph without mentioning State catcher Dustin Skelton, surely the MVP of the Super Regional. Besides a splendid performance behind the plate both nights, he provided two doubles Saturday night and then a triple and a single Sunday. His three-run triple – nearly a home run to right center field in the third inning – gave the Bulldogs a 4-1 lead.
Nor can we go another paragraph without praise of Sunday night starter Peyton Plumlee – like Skelton, from Olive Branch – who delivered a remarkable performance on a huge stage. After giving up a leadoff home run in the first inning, Plumlee held the Cardinal hitless over the next 6 and 2/3 innings before exiting to a standing ovation. Normally, the Bulldogs’ No. 3 starter, Plumlee replaced freshman sensation J.T. Ginn, apparently still recovering from arm soreness. Ginn – or anyone else – would have been hard-pressed to match Plumlee’s effort this night.
More good news for State: Lemonis said Ginn would have pitched Monday had a Game 3 been necessary. He expects the Brandon freshman to be full-go at Omaha.
These Bulldogs, especially seniors such as Mangum, MacNamee and Plumlee have achieved so much: advancing to four Super Regionals, and now two College World Series under four different head coaches.
There’s just one final step.
“I didn’t come back here just to go to Omaha,” Mangum said. “We are trying to win a National Championship. We’re one step closer. We still have work to do.”